Chain Mail: A virtual conversation through image and text

Three weeks ago, BJP-online asked Aaron Schuman to start a chain mail — he selected an image, answered four questions we sent him, and nominated Vanessa Winship as the next participant. He sent four of his own questions, alongside his selected photograph — an unseen image from a new publication he has been working on. The chain continued — travelling from Winship to Clint Woodside, on to Ed Templeton, and eventually reaching Todd Hido.

Through the accompanying Q&As, the chain mail reveals how some of the participants are spending their time during lockdown — from reflecting on their surroundings, to sharing what they have been cooking. Here, we present the result so far — seen in its entirety for the first time.

From: British Journal of Photography
To: Aaron Schuman
Date: 10 April 2020

Can you describe the place you are spending lockdown?

I’m at home with my family in the small Somerset town of Frome; for the most part I’ve been spending my time between my office/studio in the attic (surrounded by books, boxes of negatives, and random bits of ephemera, all of which are both distracting and comforting), our small back garden, and occasional long walks with the dog in the nearby woods, watching the water in the little river trickle downstream. We’re lucky that we live near the edge of town, so the countryside is only about a ten-minute walk away.

How have you been spending your days?

I co-lead the MA Photography programme at UWE Bristol, so I spent the first two weeks locked in my office, trying to keep everything and everyone on track as much as possible. This week, I was commissioned by Aperture to write an online article — talking with several photographers (Gus Powell, Newsha Tavakolian, and Hannah Whitaker) about how they’re responding to the current circumstances — so I spent several days working on that.

And lastly, over the course of the last year or so I’ve been slowly making new work in Italy  — actually, I was meant to be shooting there right now, as well as opening an exhibition of some of the work and giving a workshop at the brilliant Micamera in Milan next weekend, but obviously that’s all been postponed. 

Anyway, as an alternative, I’ve been going through the project again and again, re-editing and re-sequencing it in various ways, trying to figure it out in light of the current situation and beyond, and putting together a PDF book-dummy of what I’ve got so far. In fact, the photograph I’ve chosen is currently the opening image of that dummy. It was made at the Palazzo di Capodimonte in Naples; Mount Vesuvius is erupting so violently that it’s cracked the museum’s wall.

If you had to go into self-quarantine and could only take one book, one song, and have one meal for two weeks, what would they be?

I always find these ‘desert island’ questions impossible; I can literally spend hours mulling them over and changing my mind every three minutes — and have just done so.  That said, I’ve been in ‘self-isolation’ with my family for 23 days now, so two weeks doesn’t actually seem that long.

Book-wise, over the last three weeks I’ve been bouncing between Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, Oranges by John McPhee, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and revisiting She Dances on Jackson by Vanessa Winship — for editing, sequencing, and general inspiration. If I had to choose one, I’d probably go with Joseph Mitchell at the moment — his long-form reportage essays from the 1940s to 60s take me to a New York that I love profoundly but will never know; how can you go wrong with titles like Hit on the Head with a Cow, Houdini’s Picnic, and A Mess of Clams

Music-wise, I’ve found myself gravitating towards things that are dense, multilayered, and melodic but tend to have heavy bass lines. I spent an afternoon putting together an extensive classic funk and soul playlist on Spotify for my twelve-year-old daughter; she loves dancing around to James Brown’s Get Up Offa That Thing, so I thought I’d try to follow that lead and expand her horizons. I’ve also found myself revisiting TV On The Radio quite a bit — in the early-2000s I was really into them, but haven’t listened to them in a while and almost forgot just how incredible they are — so great.  If I had to choose one song, I might go with the opening track to their second album, I Was a Lover.

Food-wise, with Italy on my mind so much these days, and given the photograph I’ve included, I’m going to have to go with a Neapolitan spaghetti alle vongole e pomodorini. I know that the pomodorini are controversial, but I had it like that for the first time on the island of Procida about 10 years ago, and have ordered, cooked and preferred it that way ever since. Also, about twenty years ago in Amalfi, in a little family run restaurant around this time of year, my wife and I had the most amazing mozzarella di bufala, which had been carefully wrapped in fresh lemon leaves and then lightly smoked over a wood fire; I’ll take that as a starter any day.

Why have you chosen this photograph to start the chain, and the photographer to follow it?

I’ll let the next photographer determine that…

From: Aaron Schuman
To: Vanessa Winship
Date: 14 April 2020

© Aaron Schuman.

What did you do today that you didn’t do yesterday, and what will you do tomorrow that you didn’t do today?

I stitched two face masks yesterday, and I won’t know until tomorrow.

Close your eyes – describe the first place that your mind takes you, and what you see there?

I saw dark space for a long while and eventually I saw the lawn directly in front of our house.

Why did you take the last photograph you took?

The sea, it was so still.

When was the last time that you felt truly free?

It feels long ago, but probably would have involved climbing in a fruit orchard, something I did with the greatest of ease.

From: Vanessa Winship
To: Clint Woodside
Date: 21 April 2020

© Vanessa Winship.

I liked the questions that Aaron asked, so I’ll use those and add two of my own. What did you do today that you didn’t do yesterday, and what will you do tomorrow that you didn’t do today?

I installed a shelf for my wife in the kitchen, which I have been talking about doing for about a year. Tomorrow, I will film videos of all the Deadbeat Club releases for people to look at online somehow. 

When was the last time that you felt truly free?

Maybe the last time I was out delivering our coffee to my friends in LA..I get to ride a scooter around and it has been fun because of the lack of the usual traffic. Let’s just say, here have been plenty of not quite legal u-turns out there. Ha!

What gets you up in the morning?

Usually, before I go to bed, I set up some job or chore I need to do tomorrow. It’s usually something small but productive. That’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up — that, and coffee.

When you look in the mirror who do you see?

Just a guy. 

From: Clint Woodside
To: Ed Templeton
Date: 27 April 2020

© Clint Woodside.

What new dish have you learned to cook?

During this pandemic we signed up for a vegan meal service called Purple Carrot. They send you ingredients and recipes, and you prep and cook them yourself. It has been nice cooking together with my wife Deanna, which we rarely did before. Last week we made creamed Swiss chard with tofu. It was my first time cooking with coconut milk, but it was so tasty and so easy to make that we now want to adapt it into other meals. Trying these recipes has forced me to learn new cooking skills that I’ll be able to use forever.

What did you do today?

Each day is an epic battle with procrastination. But, mostly, I have been painting. My studio, darkroom and office are at my house, so through a work-lens, the pandemic days feel quite normal. The big difference is now there are no distractions, except my cell phone, which is constantly beckoning me. I have been getting paintings done, but, I miss walking around outside and shooting photos.

What was the last book you took off your shelf?

I inspected Stress & Density, a catalogue for a big retrospective of Peter Beard’s work. Since it was revealed that he died last week, I have been rediscovering his books, which are some of the oldest in my collection since he was an early inspiration for me. It’s a handsome book, with a copious number of images. I remember learning of the book in 2000, and not being able to find it anywhere online. In desperation, I ended up cold-calling the KunstHausWien, Vienna, where the show was held. I got to the gift shop and asked if they had one. Luckily they had a few left!

What do you see when you think about what it will be like once we are no longer in quarantine?

I think things will be different for a long time. This is a test case for the future. I know I will be more prepared for the next pandemic, which could be magnitudes deadlier and more easily spreadable than this one. I think a lot of independent businesses will be forced to close because of this — like bookstores, restaurants, and art galleries. It’s important to support the businesses you love during this time. I think masks will be the new normal in America, and I think shaking hands may be over in some communities. I have heard that most art fairs may be a distant memory, but we’ll see, rich collectors like having everything in one place for easy shopping. So there will be a large, gaping wound after this is over, which will disrupt our normal lives and traditions for a time. But, it will heal over time, and we will adapt to the new normal. It’s amazing how far we can bend and evolve to new things.

From: Ed Templeton 
To: Todd Hido
Date: 29 April 2020

© Ed Templeton.

I know you’re an avid book collector, but do you have a “Holy Grail” book you have always wanted and have never been able to get?

When I was in Sao Paolo Brazil about a year ago, which seems like an absolutely ancient experience compared to what we are going through now, I visited one of my favourite photography spaces called IMS — Instituto Moreira Salles. In the library there — which was an amazing and entirely open to the public photobook library, one of the best I’ve seen — I discovered a deluxe version of the El fotolibro latinoamericano that was published by the Fundación Televisa. I have the trade version of this book but especially now after lockdown and everything coming through the internet I am lusting after thick paper and large pages.

Tell us about your favourite recent photobook purchase?

The latest book I have received and find to be the most intriguing is “Day Sleeper” by Sam Contis where I believe Sam was able to go through Dorothea Lange’s archive at the Oakland Museum of California. She created an edit of pictures and as Contis says, “the images here are Lange’s; the selection and relationship between them are mine”. I find that to be a very interesting method of working and the results very much make you think.

What is something the Covid-19 pandemic has taken from you?

I don’t even know where to begin, but I don’t have a lot of room to complain because I am very lucky to be healthy and so are the ones that I love. But also, like many people, the liberty and freedoms that we normally get to exercise really stand out as being essential to our wellbeing.

What is something the pandemic has given to you?

That’s an easy thing to answer and it feels more proactive to focus on what it has given me which is a very clear perspective of what matters and what doesn’t.

From: Todd Hido
To be continued…
Date: 29 April 2020

© Todd Hido.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner worked as an editor at BJP between 2018 and 2023. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.